Scientists Grow Meat in the Lab

January 15, 2010 04:20 PM
by Colleen Brondou
What could save animals, end world hunger and protect the environment? Scientists are hoping that meat engineered in the lab might do the trick.

From Stem Cell to Pork Chop

The In-vitro Meat Consortium, a group of Dutch research institutions, has been growing pig stem cells into strips of meat since 2006. Scientists hope the meat could offer an alternative to factory farming and meet the growing food supply demand, as well as relieve stress on the environment, Maria Cheng reports for the Associated Press.

“If we took the stem cells from one pig and multiplied it by a factor of a million, we would need one million fewer pigs to get the same amount of meat,” Mark Post, a biologist at Maastricht University involved in the In-vitro Meat Consortium, told Cheng.

How does one grow pork? First, researchers extract stem cells from the muscle cells of pigs. These cells are placed in a nutrient-rich solution that helps the cells replicate. According to Cheng, so far scientists have only been able to create strips of meat about one-half inch long. To grow a pork chop, it is estimated that it would take approximately 30 days of cell replication.

Opinion & Analysis: What of taste? And health? And the environment?

What does the lab-grown pork taste like? Cheng reports that none of the Dutch scientists have actually eaten the meat, but Post describes the texture as being similar to a scallop: “firm but a little squishy and moist.” The main challenge has been reproducing the protein level of regular meat: Livestock meat is 90 percent protein while the lab meat is 80 percent protein, combined with water and nucleic acids. Many experts doubt whether the lab-grown meat could ever taste as good as real meat.

“What meat tastes like depends not just on the genetics, but what you feed the animals at particular times,” Peter Ellis, a biochemistry expert at King’s College London, told the AP. “Part of our enjoyment of eating meat depends on the very complicated muscle and fat structure ... whether that can be replicated is still a question.”

Aside from taste concerns, others point out that meat grown in the lab could be engineered to be healthier than its original. Cheng suggests that fish stem cells could be mixed with lab-grown pork to infuse the meat with healthy omega 3 fatty acids. But others say it’s too soon to tell whether meats produced in the lab might have harmful effects on human health.

“With any new technology, there could be subtle impacts that need to be monitored,” Emma Hockridge, policy manager at Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic organization, told Cheng.

Perhaps the environment would benefit the most: Switching from factory farms to lab-grown meat could have a huge impact on the ecosystem. According to Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University, growing meat in the lab could possibly lower greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent, and lower land and water use by approximately 95 percent. 

Background: Other attempts at lab-grown meat

Although other groups in the United States, Japan and Scandinavia have also been working on producing meat in the laboratory, the Dutch project has had the most success. NASA funded similar research in hopes of growing meat in space to feed astronauts on long trips. In 2002, Richard Stenger reported for CNN that NASA researchers were growing chunks of goldfish meat in the lab.

“This could save you having to slaughter animals for food,” Morris Benjaminson, a bioengineer and the leader of the NASA-funded project, told CNN.

But as Cheng reports, “[A]fter growing disappointingly thin sheets of tissue, NASA gave up and decided it would be better for its astronauts to simply eat vegetarian.”

Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the high profile animal rights organization, thinks that lab-grown meat is a good idea. In 2008, the group offered $1 million to the first person that could create chicken meat from stem cells and have it ready for market by 2012. PETA believes in vitro meat could spare animals from being killed; without a central nervous system, the lab-grown tissue would be without consciousness and unable to feel pain.

Related Topic: Genetically modified foods

Although genetically modified corn and soybeans have been available in abundance for years, federal officials announced in 2008 that they would consider allowing genetically engineered animals to be sold as food to consumers, without labels.

Also in 2008, the FDA announced that meat and byproducts from the offspring of cloned animals might have entered the U.S. food supply. There was no way to be sure as there is no distinction between meat from cloned animals and meat from naturally born animals.

Reference: Nutrition

Concerned about maintaining a healthy diet? Visit the findingDulcinea Web Guide to Nutrition to find the best online resources for learning about healthy eating, food allergies, food safety and more.

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